TAMPA — Moments after Dr. Mae C. Jemison stepped on stage Thursday morning at the Tampa Convention Center, she had the audience hanging on her every word.
The former NASA astronaut and first African-American woman in space spoke to nearly 4,300 people about empowerment and racial and gender issues in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. She talked about her life and what led to her success. She joked about appearing in a Star Trek episode.
Jemison laughed with the crowd while encouraging students of all races and genders to pursue science literacy.
"Why is STEM important?" she asked. "Because it changes our lives, and it's important for everyone to be involved, to be diverse. We need the full scale of human skills."
Jemison's 45-minute speech opened the 28th National Association of Independent Schools' People of Color Conference. The 1,600 students in the crowd had streamed into Tampa from all over the country. They came from different places — New York, Oregon, Rhode Island — but they were all in the room for the same reason: to be inspired and make social change.
"It was exciting to see one of my childhood heroes talk," Tomiwa Sobande, 16, said. "She emphasized our own self-esteem, and just learning to say, 'I'm here, listen to me.' "
Maryland student Malaika Ngwana, 17, said Jemison's speech made her feel powerful enough to start making changes now.
"Why be extraordinary tomorrow when you can do amazing things today?" she said. "We go back home 1,600 voices strong. We're not alone in this."
But more than just students were affected by Jemison's speech. Teachers, directors and school leaders were fired up, too.
"I feel like the world is going to be okay because we have such amazing people trying to make change," said Danae Howe, a dean at a girls school in Pasadena, Calif.
"The students are going to come back to school like they're at the starting line of the 100 yard dash at the Olympic race," she said. "They're ready to go and they're ready to make change."
Contact Hanna Marcus at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @hmarcus.